The German city of Hamburg is gearing up for a referendum on a controversial reform to education that could see primary school extended from four years to six. But a citizens' initiative stands in the government's way.
Proponents of the reform say it will help the disadvantaged
Twenty-five girls and boys stand in a semicircle in their classroom and sing a song in Latin. The kids are fourth-graders at the Grumbrecht Street primary school in the Hamburg suburb of Heimfeld.
The school's headmaster, Rainer Kuehlke, said the singing exercise is part of Grumbrecht Street's so-called Language Carousel, a program that sees the young students learning Latin, Spanish, French and English one after the other for nine weeks at a time.
The carousel course is designed to make it easier for the children to select one foreign language to learn in fifth grade, if they are selected for what the German system calls a Gymnasium, or academic high school.
Germany has a three-tier education system where children are sent to separate institutions after primary school. The weak students go to a Hauptschule, those opting for higher vocational training to a Realschule and future academics to a Gymnasium.
Primary school students would stay together for an extra two years
In Germany education policy is not centralized, but rather left to the governments of all 16 federal states to decide on - and this has led to a lot of variety across the country.
In the city-state of Hamburg, children go to primary school for four years until the age of 10 and are then separated according to their abilities - a move that shapes their lives. Education experts say this is too early - they argue that two more years of learning together would help the weaker students improve their chances for the future.
This notion is at the heart of government proposals to reform Hamburg's education system that would see students spend an extra two years at primary school.
The reforms would also see the different types of grammar schools boiled down to just two - the Gymnasium and a so-called neighborhood school. Parents would also no longer be allowed to select which of these schools their child attended. This decision would be made by teachers on the basis of merit and ability.
The city's trade unions and chambers of commerce, as well as numerous migrant associations, have spoken out in favor of extending primary school learning, arguing that the current system discriminates against children with working-class and migrant backgrounds.
All students would have the chance to take a university entrance exam
"In my home country it's natural to go to primary school for six years, and if I had not been able to do that, I would surely not have made it to the level where I can pursue an academic career here in Germany," said native Greek Panis Drossinakis.
In Hamburg, every second child has some kind of a migrant background, and their families often belong to the disadvantaged in German society. Many have a working class background and their parents' German skills are lacking, so it is these boys and girls who are left behind in the current system.
Pedagogical scientist Johannes Bastian said success in the German school system depends too much on family background.
"Even with the same level of achievement, children from working-class families have a smaller chance of making it to Gymnasium than the child of university-educated parents," he says.
Lowering the bar?
But the plan has been bitterly opposed by school groups and many parents' groups, who are planning a referendum on the issue for this Sunday - it's outcome, political observers say, could make or break the ruling coalition.
The city's Gymnasium schools are especially concerned about the effect the proposed changes could have on the quality of education. They fear their specialist profiles would be trimmed if the government gets it way, and that students would receive a lesser education because they would have less time to study their desired field, be it music, the humanities or the arts.
Christa Goetsch is trying to push the reforms through
Many of Hamburg's headmasters and parents accuse the city's schools minister, Christa Goetsch of the Greens, of lowering educational standards. They say they can't understand how there could be no exception made for schools and educational methods they say have been time-proven.
Media lawyer Walter Scheuerl heads an initiative he founded two years ago called We Want to Learn. In November last year, the initiative organized a petition against the government's education reforms, and within only a few weeks had gathered some 180,000 signatures against the changes, enough to force Sunday's referendum.
This pushed the city's government - a coalition of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Hamburg Greens party - into weeks of debate over a possible compromise to avert the public vote. The coalition was unable to reach that compromise.
Many schools around Hamburg have already begun adapting to the changes espoused by the city government, but if Hamburgers vote against the reforms on Sunday then it will have all been in vain.
Author: Kathrin Erdmann/dfm
Editor: Martin Kuebler